Eating Whales and Horses In Iceland
|Bright green valley.|
Reykjavik is a modest city, a little more populous than Fort Lauderdale. (Iceland is the size of Kentucky with roughly one tenth the population.) Its architecture is lovely but spare -- far sparer than that of any mainland European capitol. Iceland needn't rely on manmade monuments to impress, for the Icelandic landmass itself is more dramatic than anything made by human hands, and it monumentalizes concerns far grander and less temporal than our own. On the drive from the Keflavik airport to Reykjavik, you encounter a shallow but endlessly long ravine which is actually the point of departure for the Mid-Atlantic and Eurasian tectonic plates, which move apart at a rate of about a meter per year, pulling with them the two halves of the ocean as well as the continents of Europe and North America. Nearby, you find vast fields of rough volcanic rock, covered in low sulfuric mists ejected from boiling pools just below (and occasionally atop) the soil. Elsewhere, you drive over a ridge and come face-to-face with a bright green valley that seems all out of proportion to the ordinary rules of human sight-lines. Your eyes follow distant rivers for what seem like ten, twenty miles, until the rivers open up into far-distant marshlands and shallows. Never has your eye captured so much territory at a glance, and the astounding quantity of earth arrayed before you is made harder to contextualize because of the near total absence of trees, which would otherwise be a handy indicator of size. The soil of Iceland is too new to facilitate much vegetation, beyond the occasional shrub and the ubiquitous coating of pillowy moss.
My first night in Reykjavik, some friendly local contacts brought Randi and I to a fine dining establishment called Einar Ben. Einar Ben serves a uniquely Icelandic kind of haute cuisine -- the sturdy foods of windswept salty places; celeriac, raddish, crushed potato, and strange meats. Maybe because of the country's intoxicating beauty, or maybe because of the kindness of the locals or the assurances of the chef, or maybe because I'm a miserable excuse for a human being, I decided to eat the two most un-American things on the menu. I ate horse. And I ate whale.
The whale was the appetizer. It was minke whale, served carpaccio style with I-can't-remember-what-style greens. It was deep red and lightly marinated, and I knew from the first bite that it was the best meat I'd ever eaten. Imagine the flavor of the freshest grass-fed beef, highly concentrated, almost pungent, inhabiting a hunk of meat possessing roughly the consistency and texture of toro. That's minke.
"Minke whales are stupid," explained one of my hosts. "We only hunt them around the island. A few hundred kills per year. And if you were a smart mammal -- and I trust you are -- and if you found that you were hunted and killed in one area but not in another, you would ignore that place."
I found this argument convincing, all the moreso because I was sitting in a beautiful dining room with a glistening plate of the stuff in front of me. I meant to pace myself, but couldn't. Whale was too delicious. As I stuffed my face, I had the crazy thought: "It doesn't taste smart." Probably, neither do I.
There is one Icelandic whaling company which ignores minke, and hunts instead the larger, rarer finback whale, primarily for export to Japan. The finbacks are endangered. In 2009, Icelandic whalers killed 125.
I was a little sad and a little relieved when the minke was gone. The horse wasn't as interesting. After the gustatory transport of the whale, nothing could be. The particular dish was "tenderloin of foal," and it arrived pre-cut, with charred bitter greens and herbs of I-don't-know-what provenance. It would have been excellent with apples or cinnamon. It tasted like gamier pork.
After Randi's engagement the following night, we set off to find midnight eats. Even in June, when the sky never darkens, Reykjavik shuts down early. After half a dozen inquiries with restaurants in the process of closing, we found what was allegedly a Mexican restaurant that stayed open 'til 2 a.m. They served enormous margaritas, and extraordinary spicy seafood soup. The menu offered minke burritos. We ordered chicken flautas.